What’s the solution to the artist earnings crisis? Maybe it’s not that touring isn’t working, but rather the way that artists are touring isn’t working.
Increasingly, there seems to be a diversification problem, with artists only focused on one type of gig. But if playing weddings, corporate gigs, or birthday parties is beneath you, then you might be forcing yourself into a life of paltry streaming royalties and pizza deliveries. Playing the ‘money gigs,’ as they’re sometimes called, isn’t for everyone, but there now appears to be a growing class of artists that are figuring out ways to turn private gigs into a sustainable living. All of which enables longer-term growth instead of lower-level survival, and potentially offers a solution to a number of problems with traditional shows and touring.
A big barrier to embracing a broader set of gigs may be the rock star self-image, which may simply be too expensive for the up-and-coming artist in today’s music industry. Especially with non-traditional, cover-focused gigs paying meaningful sums. “From a business perspective, you’re talking about gigs that can pay anywhere from $250 to several thousand dollars depending on your experience and pricing,” DC-based guitarist Austin Ellis told DMN over the weekend.
Ellis brushed with fame as a finalist on The Voice last year and is now earning healthy paychecks gigging. “I’ve actually had people ask to pay me significantly more than I quoted them for just because they were expecting to pay more. These aren’t dive bars either.”
This gets at the issue facing almost every artist: streaming is rapidly taking over as the biggest music format, but unfortunately, it’s absolutely the worst format for artist revenues. And the biggest streaming platform of all, YouTube, is absolutely, positively the worst when it comes to artist compensation (not counting pirate sites).
Spotify, Apple Music, and others like Deezer aren’t much better. So most artists are left with a difficult choice: scrape by on a trickle of micro-pennies, or radically reconsider non-traditional gigging opportunities. Because even if you want to fill Madison Square Garden, the challenge is to stay alive before you get that break.
Enter touring, which everyone thought was the way to fix the problems presented by Spotify, YouTube, and piracy. But even though streaming platforms can be fantastic at generating exposure, leveraging that exposure into something meaningful on the concert side has only panned out for a tiny sliver of superstars like Skrillex and Diplo. Others, even super-successful indies like Zoe Keating, Imogen Heap, and most famously Pompalamoose, couldn’t make the formula work.
So where does that leave the remaining 99.9% of artists trying to create a sustainable living? We found one duo that has started to seriously expand their live performance palette to include non-traditional ‘money gigs,’ with pretty solid results and ‘workplace’ satisfaction. “We love unconventional gigs,” Mia Hackett of the husband-wife singer-songwriter duo Azalea told DMN.
The problem Azalea had was a painfully familiar one: they weren’t making enough from recordings, publishing, and conventional performances. “We were doing some teaching to supplement our income at the time,” said Benjamin Hackett, Azalea’s other half. “We wanted to move away from that and we decided to branch out. We wanted to move to a place where we were playing live concerts, selling tickets and playing original material.”
So, starting about five years ago, the duo started booking shows at restaurants, lounges, pubs, and the usual venues. It was pretty brutal work, and still didn’t get them the revenue they were looking for, so Benjamin decided to think like a booking agent and researched more options. At that point he encountered GigSalad, a DMN partner, where people looking for live music can search for performers by location or genre.
This is where the ‘happy ending’ started to take shape. Pretty soon after Azalea set up a profile on GigSalad, they realized this type of approach wasn’t redundant with their club booking efforts. “It was a logical expansion of our search for ways to make a living making music,” Benjamin said. Basically, they started getting requests for gigs they never would have found otherwise.
Fast-forward to the present, and Azalea is making or performing music full-time (a quick look at their itinerary shows at least half-a-dozen listed gigs for November alone, with more likely unlisted). With sustainability as a goal, this was the group’s ‘career breakthrough,’ which also involves a nice prize called ‘groceries’.
There’s one catch: you really have to commit yourself to this expansion, physically and mentally, or it simply won’t work. And part of Azalea’s success came from their flexibility, both in terms of their attitude and musical approach. This is absolutely key, and for those accustomed to playing originals for fans (or not), it requires a huge shift in psychology. This isn’t about the rock star lifestyle, but it is about making music, and making a living along the way.
Artists also need to be comfortable playing covers, even if it violently disagrees with their self-images. Ellis flips the entire problem on its head by pointing to a critical funding engine. “Imagine that you’re being paid $1,000 for an hour or two of your time, and imagine paying all of your bills, and still having plenty to invest in your new album, merch, music videos, and more every month. All to learn and arrange in your own original style, music that you like and know,” Ellis relayed.
“I know there are some purists that will not budge on this concept and I tip my hat with respect to them, but I also encourage anyone who thinks it’s impossible to make a really good living playing music to reconsider.”
But if the psychological hurdle itself is complicated, so are the potential solutions. Artists whose egos can’t accept playing covers for less-than-rapt audiences will probably never do well in the money gig arena, but for many artists, the biggest problem is simply a marketing one. After all, fans that know a band for its originals could get confused by the cover-playing version, and vice-versa. These are different audiences, and potentially lucrative ones, but things get tricky if these groups intermingle.
A number of artists tackle this issue by assuming two identities: one for money gigs that typically feature crowd-pleasing covers, and the other for gigs (paid or otherwise) that feature originals and a core following. Actually, this identity-switch can apply to any number of working situations: session work, working gigs with cover songs, or situations that call for smaller subsets of the larger group, like serenades or small parties.
This isn’t a new strategy: back in the 1960s, English rock group The Pretty Things routinely recorded under the name Electric Banana for extensive soundtrack recording work. And session-quality musicians often find themselves bouncing between their ‘rock star’ group and any number of ad-hoc studio session ensembles, gigging bands, or solo recording engagements. It’s a strategy that smartly keeps the money flowing, broadens musical connections and partnerships, and gives the core, originals-focused ensemble time to mature and ‘get their break.’
Of course, there’s always the chance that one group of fans will bleed into the other, especially in smaller communities. Dan Fisk, a Washington, DC-based singer-songwriter, suggests using cover gigs to attract new, longer-term fans. “Let’s not forget that there are really only two big reasons you are playing cover gigs while you are trying to make it in the original music world,” Fisk blogged. “(1) make money; and (2) gain fans that will hopefully support your original music aspirations.”
That said, the risk of getting pigeon-holed as a cover group exists, but even that can be managed with some original-sounding covers. And remember: even the Beatles were playing covers at the beginning of their career. “Before you know it, you are on stage about to play that new song you just got done writing, while the crowd is just begging you to play that Johnny Cash tune you do so well,” Fisk noted. “It’s for this reason that making cover songs ‘your own’ is a good idea. Put your own twist to it, while still paying homage to the original version, offering the listener a unique interpretation.”
“You are an original artist after all, aren’t you?”
One thing artists are not, is 9-5ers. “We feel like we weren’t built for 9 to 5 jobs,” Mia admitted. “Many people do it well, but we aren’t all that great at it. Getting all the requests we get inspired us to push for unconventional, private gigs to focus on those bookings.”
We asked Azalea to share their top tips for ramping up paid gigs and grow their reputation. Here’s what they suggested:
Have a strong online profile with videos that jive with what you actually do live. For example, if you rarely play acoustic at clubs but want to push that side of your work, you need a video that shows just that. “We didn’t have enough videos that represented us as well as they could have at first,” reflects Mia. “For that reason, we got requests for gigs that were outside of what we do best. We switched them out for videos that showed what we did really well.”
Present honestly what aspects of your music work well for nontraditional gigs. “You need to match yourself to your strength,” suggests Benjamin. “We have a great band and go over very well in wedding ceremonies, for proposals. There’s a very strong lovey-dovey element to what we do.” “We work well in those romantic endearing moments,” adds Mia.
Guide your clients to help improve the overall flow of the moment. Playing a “money gig” means doing more than simply showing up, playing, having a beer, and going home. “Once you’ve done a few gigs in certain genres, you feel what works. You develop a comfort with that particular gig,” says Benjamin. “You can talk with the organizers about how things might work. You can tell them they may need some music here, some here, and then they can start imagining how it can come together.” The added guidance and expertise increases your chances for a repeat booking, word of mouth referrals, and even five-star reviews online.
Expect the unexpected; have extra music ready. Sometimes, you need to be ready to add music where it wasn’t anticipated if there’s a hiccup or holdup in a ceremony, for instance. “In the end, oftentimes we’ll add some music, sensing that it needs to be done,” says Benjamin. “Improvisation is part of learning to think about your performance from your clients’—and not just your own, artistic—perspective.”
Make expectations of your role clear. Sometimes, Benjamin and Mia note, you have to explain what a musician’s work and role is, what’s possible, and what is out of the question. “You can be straightforward about your boundaries, but you can do it politely,” urges Mia. “Most people don’t understand how a musician’s life works. You need to explain things calmly. Think hard before you hit send.” Being flexible, treading lightly, yet satisfying a need your clients didn’t know they had all make for successful gigs, excellent reviews, and growing interest in your performances.
Be open to creative gigs and go with the flow. A recent performance Azalea booked via GigSalad was at a young man’s home. He left the door open, gave the duo a few minutes to get settled, then returned with his girlfriend, whom he hoped would soon be his fiancée. It was awkward for a moment: The young woman was shocked to find strangers in the living room—until they started playing. The shock turned to delighted surprise. “It was a great moment,” smiles Mia.
View unconventional private gigs as an opportunity to enrich your artistic creativity. Though unconventional gigs can be a wonderful way to earn a living, these performances can also expand and enrich your creative life as an artist. “There is more value to your time, which is good, and that value also comes from practicing your craft,” muses Benjamin. “Sometimes we’ll even get a song request for a private event and we may not have thought to include it in our sets. But in working on it, we’ve found it stretches us. We’re outside of what we would usually do ourselves. It can spark something that inspires a new song of our own.”
Top pizza box image by Sam Beckwith, second by adrigu, both licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 (CC by 2.0).